This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 28 June 2010. The link is here:
“When Passion Turned Reckless, England Paid The Price”
The game is up.
Much emphasis — too much emphasis — is placed upon what is supposedly the England soccer team’s greatest asset, its passion. Readers of the domestic news media, and in particular its tabloids, are regularly assured that few if any footballers are more dedicated to their cause than those in English causes. This is a false orthodoxy on which many onlookers may choke — it’s not as if say North Korea were devoid of intensity during the national anthem before the Brazil match — but it’s also something of an irrelevance. During its 4-1 defeat to Germany, England was not beaten because of inadequate passion, but because of its lack of two other Ps: proper passing and positional sense.
At first glance, the pass completion rates of Frank Lampard (78 percent) and Gareth Barry (75) in central midfield compare favorably with those of their Spanish counterparts. Xavi, rightly lauded for his role in Spain’s stellar qualifying campaign, had a completion rate after three matches of 78 percent, while Xabi Alonso had one of 81. If we are conducting a postmortem of England’s World Cup campaign, the truth is not to be found immediately in the midfield passing figures.
One part of the England game that could usefully be eliminated, but for which there is sadly no readily available statistic, is the scoop. The scoop is a slow pass, lofted around waist height, that is hit over the distance of 10-15 yards. Viewed in isolation, the scoop looks fairly innocuous; but if it’s launched at a fellow player in a congested area or, worse still, hoisted across the face of a player’s own back four, it is very difficult to control, and is thus a threat to both the team’s possession and to its defense.
We saw plenty of the scoop from England against Germany. We also saw plenty of the slash — the sliced, arcing, pass hit deep from one wing to the other. This is a technique that England’s players execute with impressive and professional regularity in the Premier League, but that too regularly ended up at the feet of an opposing defender or in touch. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Barry were all anxious and unsuccessful purveyors of the slash; on a handful of occasions, they selected these passes when a simple square pass would have sufficed.
The other main flaw was England’s positional sense, and here we may have had cause to rue the lack of genuinely defensive midfielders. Germany’s third and fourth goals arrived from counterattacks of beautiful simplicity, the result of English players left hopelessly exposed in space and without support. Take Thomas Müller’s first, which gave Germany a 3-1 lead. Here, Gareth Barry found himself on the edge of the opposition penalty area, several yards ahead of Lampard, who had just taken a charged-down free kick. Barry’s failure to play a telling through-pass was punished swiftly and severely, as Germany surged into the space directly behind him. Before Müller’s emphatic finish, we saw Lampard embark upon a futile 70-yard sprint toward his goal, at one point covering three attackers.
Muller’s second, and Germany’s fourth, told a tale of a fullback caught short by the length of the field. When the ball was floated clear of the German penalty area, it fell to the gleeful feet of Mezul Özil. The Germans found themselves in a race with John Terry. Terry has many qualities, but chasing down playmakers as quick as Pegasus is not one of them. Glen Johnson, England’s right back, was stranded a few yards from his opponent’s goal; when Germany scored, the next player to arrive back in the area after the forlorn Terry was Ashley Cole, who had made a fruitless pilgrimage from the left flank.
In the final analysis, it seems that England was undone by a surplus, not a surfeit, of passion. The positional mistakes that they made spoke of a desire and a desperation to do with their feet what the ball could have done both more safely and effectively. On one notable occasion in the first half, James Milner — a right-wing in England’s 4-4-2 system — was closer to the left touchline than Gerrard, who started on the left. In a split second of reflection, Germany’s counterattackers might have looked up ahead of them at the unguarded pastures ahead, and silently formed a plan.
And so the game is up. While the cacophony of rage over Lampard’s disallowed first-half goal will continue, as will the supposedly jovial jingoism aimed at Germany by English tabloids, a silent and stark truth will eventually stand out. In a tournament where most hotly tipped teams lined up with one genuinely defensive midfielder (Argentina’s Javier Mascherano) or even two (Brazil’s Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo), England sacrificed such pragmatism on the altar of reckless tempo. Furiously kinetic, they have been eliminated from the World Cup, playing in a fashion that while true to their buccaneering traditions was cruelly and wholly exposed. At least, as they return home, they can tell all who assail them with criticism that they went out, if not in style, then certainly in their own.